Thoughts, notes, etc.

View the Site on GitHub

View my GitHub Profile

View my LinkedIn


7 August 2022

Revisiting Basecamp

by Florian

It’s been a little over a year since Basecamp (and several other companies - Apple, Coinbase, etc.) had their respective blowups around “woke” culture taking over their workplaces.

If you’re not familiar, Apple fired a guy for some questionable language in a book he’d written a decade earlier when employees started an online petition requesting he be fired. Coinbase just up and said we won’t do politics and Basecamp, in short, did the same thing after a list turned up that mocked ethnically or religiously different names.

This was a thing in the zeitgeist for like a month. Should we talk about politics at (remote) work? Is it bravery to stand up to woke mobs? Are woke mobs ruining the holy halls of corporate America?

I think my opinion at the time amount to something along the lines of: “This is stupid” and “Wow, people actually talk to each other at work?”

Regardless, I was pretty interested in it and read the relevant Platformer article(s), listened to several podcasts, and paid close attention to the numerous HN threads about the brouhaha.

Now that I’m older and wiser, and everything’s cooled off, let’s revisit the incident.

Work is messy, work is different

Workplaces are just weird.

It’s just strange? And there’s no other word for it. The verisimilitude of people’s work selves, the faux caring of the company about the employees (which is also sometimes true!), the transactional relationships you have with coworkers.

It’s all odd and difficult to navigate. I say all this not to excuse any of the companies’ decisions, more just to point out that workplaces are uniquely strange social situations and near impossible to get right.

The second point to make is that all of these companies are different. I feel like a lot of the discourse around the three incidents lumped them together because they’re all “companies” but they’re really totally different. Apple is a trillion dollar software/hardware maker with thousands of employees, Basecamp is a small, private, and vocal software company, and Coinbase is a crypto startup.

Other than these places being literal work places, they don’t have a lot in common and we shouldn’t treat them as if they are.

With all that said, let’s dive in to the Basecamp incident.

Praise in public, criticize in private

As a manager, a sort of golden-rule is that you should never criticize somebody in a public meeting. Especially in a remote public meeting. You have no context for intonation, body language, etc. and (more importantly) the person doesn’t deserve to be raked over the coals in front of their peers.

Instead you should politely move on and then bring it up with them in private. I’m not huge on power dynamics but managers, and especially CEOs, hold a lot of power within a company. For them to even lightly critique somebody in a public setting can have disastrous consequences on the critiquee - from feeling inadequate to not being respected by their coworkers.

A decent manager knows this and that’s why we (re: the Software industry) have one-on-one meetings and that kinda thing.

The leadership team at Basecamp are all public figures. They’ve written books, are incredibly vocal about remote work, and somewhat evangelists for Ruby on Rails… which they invented. These are not people with small blogs that nobody reads (like me!).

As near as I can read, the precipitating incident was an employee posting the Pyramid of Hate with regards to mocking the names of African and Asian Basecamp clients.

Did the managers call the employee and ask what he/she meant by this? Did they engage them one-on-one to discuss DEI, which is what they were on an internally formed team to discuss?

No, instead the leadership at Basecamp posted a blog which they knew would be read by millions of people, near immediately on their public blogging platform.

This is such a bizarre move that it really makes you question their competence and motives.

What’s so fascinating to me, in retrospect, is that we still have no idea what the employee meant by sending that message! Nobody ever seems to have asked the obvious, uh, “What did you mean by sending that?”

Did the employee mean that they were laying the foundation for genocide? Or was it just a reminder of how seemingly harmless actions can lead to greater consequences? Was it an inditement of Basecamp itself or a broader cultural reflection on our words and actions?

We don’t know! Workplace situations are messy and this was over chat. Maybe the person just found the pyramid and thought it relevant to this situation?

But, did the management call them up and ask them? Did they respectfully disagree and move on? Or even 1:1 discuss their differences?

No! They posted a public blog read by millions of people condemning (albeit indirectly) that person’s actions. This is such a disastrous mismanagement of a very normal, albeit awkward, work situation that it’s simply astounding. It’s compounded by the fact that this is a small company, something they’ve bragged about quite a bit. As Basecamp likes to tout: They have deep personal relationships, despite being remote! And yet, this.

Ultimately, this seems like a massive failure by management. I think their egos were hurt (understandably!) and they overreacted in a dramatic fashion. Ironically, I think they were just as much swept up in a political trend (no politics at work is good now! Look at Coinbase!) as the woke people posting the Pyramid of Hate.

Corporate Courage

Despite what Sam Harris thinks, I can’t quite land on this being a courageous thing to do. It’s courageous in the sense that Fried stood up for his values, but again, there’s a power dynamic at play here.

We know in retrospect that this turned out to be a total nothing-burger. The company is fine. It hasn’t blown up. Jason is still blogging and has a sizeable platform. People who like the “no politics at work” now work at Basecamp and people who don’t don’t.

But what if it played out differently? What if this did “bring the company down” as Fried worries in that podcast?

  1. The company would have been acquired, full stop, for a massive sum of money. There was nothing wrong with their software and somebody would have bought it. Would it be for less money than before? Yep, but that’s about it.
  2. All of the C-Suite would have become extremely wealthy - realized wealth as opposed to in the company.
  3. Fried and the rest would have started a new company, or retired, or become full time writers or something. This would not have ruined their personal reputations. It didn’t for Brian Armstrong and as much as people complain about censorship, they would not have been cancelled for this. It’s too pedantic and weedsy and a lot of people agreed with them.

What’s at stake here? Money that they already have more than enough of? Personal reputation? They’d have to return to living in obscurity like the rest of us? Ego?

I just can’t see it.

The Mirror of Erised

We see what we want to in these stories.

Basecamp is a totally fine work management software that you would, and perhaps should, never have heard of. They have fewer than 60 employees and, by every metric, are a rounding error. It’s a totally fine, SMB that had a public management failure.

That’s it. It is not a harbinger of the things to come. It is not a failing of the bulwarks of American capitalism. It means nothing for your workplace, which is likely totally different. Or the petty annoyances you’ve had when people talk about politics in the workplace.

Conservatives saw somebody standing up to the woke mob (of 5 people that he employed, but whatever). Progressives saw a rich, privileged white man laying the seeds of genocide (in a work management software used by a handful of people, but whatever).

A year later, like so much of the culture war bullshit, it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

tags: posts - work